I met up with a Passaic friend recently who said he had “no life” for the past three years. Indeed, it was a while since I had seen him. He was commuting daily from New Jersey to Brooklyn and then to the Bronx, with days starting early and ending late. He was overjoyed now to be changing jobs with a closer commute and better hours.
He’s not alone. I was traveling with another friend to a dinner Sunday evening when his boss called. He pulled over to speak, wrote down some notes, and told me he had an urgent assignment due in the morning. We stayed at the dinner for only 30 minutes, then he took me home, picked up his tefillin and headed to the office for an all-nighter.
Overwork seems to be a common plague—gone are the 9 to 5 jobs!
There is a parallel in this week’s parsha to our current time dilemma. The Sfas Emes explains how the exile in Egypt incorporated the four exiles the Jews would endure after the destruction of the Beis Hamikdash. Rav Gedalia Schorr notes that the fourth punishing decree Pharaoh set upon the Jews was that they must collect the straw themselves, without reducing the full daily quota of bricks they were required to make.
This fourth decree corresponds to the fourth and current exile where the workload keeps increasing without end! The effect of the fourth decree was not only a massive increase in workload to the Jews making bricks, but also scattering the Jews throughout Egypt to collect straw, thus dividing them and removing their ability to unite. In fact, the Midrash says Pharaoh took away their one day off—Shabbos. Shabbos then and now has a dual purpose. On the one hand, it’s a time of rest and respite from the pressures and anxieties of the workload during the week. Additionally, it’s a time to gather and unite—sheves achim gam yachad—Jews can gather in groups in shul to daven and learn, and parents and children, as well as friends, get to sit together and enjoy each other’s company.
The Vilna Gaon associates our current exile with the four categories of people who need to make a special blessing called birchas hagomel (thanksgiving prayer): one who is freed from prison, one who completed travel through the desert (or survived other dangerous experiences), one who traveled at sea, and one who was healed after being very sick.
Rav Avrohom Schorr, expounding on the Vilna Gaon’s association, explains the uniqueness of the fourth exile and its connection with the birchas hagomel category of a sick person healing, rather than the other three dangerous occurrences. The first three categories are dangers a person experiences outside the home. The fourth category, a sick person—and our current exile (with its stress and pressure)—incapacitates the individual even inside his home. Indeed, it’s a bit of Divine irony that last week I tripped on a rock on my driveway and now I’m stuck at home with a broken foot.
Constant communication can create its own pressure and issues. Isn’t it sad that the more communication forums we have available to stay in touch, the more we tend to disconnect? Texts, emails, instant messages, Twitter, Facebook—all these are spreading our time very thin! In many ways, they are robbing us of our ability to truly focus on the people in our immediate surroundings.
There is one more connection to the Sfas Emes’s insight regarding the four exiles. There are four terminologies of redemption from Egyptian slavery, which correspond to the four cups of wine we drink on Seder night. The fourth terminology of redemption, v’lakachti (I shall take you as a nation), relates to the final exile—which we are now experiencing and from which we are waiting and praying for Hashem’s ultimate redemption.
Our job in this difficult exile is to reconnect to Hashem. It’s time to shut off our phones. It’s time to avoid Twitter and Facebook for a while. It’s time to regain our focus on our families and loved ones. The sweetest path to reconnect is one that Hashem has already given us: Shabbos. It’s more than a day off; it’s quiet, it’s nurturing, it’s holy and it’s empowering. It’s a healthy reminder that life goes on without our constant involvement. And truly, Shabbos is a taste of the future and final redemption.
By Rabbi Baruch Bodenheim
Rabbi Baruch Bodenheim is the associate rosh yeshiva of Passaic Torah Institute (PTI)/Yeshiva Ner Boruch. PTI has attracted people from all over northern New Jersey, including Teaneck, Bergenfield, Paramus, Rockaway and Fair Lawn. He initiated and continues to lead a full multi-level Gemara learning program in the evenings, gives Halacha and hashkafa shiurim on Shabbos and, more recently, has spread out beyond PTI to begin a weekly beis midrash program with in-depth chavrusa learning in both Livingston and Springfield.